Monday, January 30, 2006

The stretch that will decide the Maryland basketball team’s postseason fate is about to begin.

The No. 18 Terrapins head into February with 10 regular-season games left, and their performance during the remainder of the season will be scrutinized when the NCAA tournament selection committee meets in March to select the field of 65.

“At this time of the year the most important thing is winning games, and the most important thing is your conference,” senior forward Nik Caner-Medley said after Maryland’s 91-85 loss at Temple on Saturday. “That’s what determines what happens at the end of the year.”

It’s no different for Maryland (14-5), which just endured a trying week. The Terps learned Monday that senior guard Chris McCray, who averaged 15.2 points, would be academically ineligible for the rest of the season.

The loss of McCray didn’t prevent the Terps from securing an emotional victory at Georgia Tech two days later. However, Maryland missed McCray’s presence as it struggled defensively Saturday.

“We’ll drop [in the rankings] after this, but we have a great road win in the ACC, we’re 4-2 and we’re ready to go,” coach Gary Williams said.

The remaining schedule is far from accommodating. Maryland does not face either Virginia Tech or Wake Forest, the two teams sharing the ACC cellar. The Terps have home-and-homes with North Carolina and surprising Virginia, and the visit to Charlottesville coincides with what should be an emotional event — the Cavaliers’ final regular-season game at University Hall.

Meetings with the two teams generally considered the class of the league (Duke and N.C. State) also remain, as do trips to resurgent Clemson and Florida State. The Terps also have rematches with Georgia Tech and Miami at Comcast Center.

“The No. 1 thing we can do is regroup and get ready to defend our homecourt,” Caner-Medley said.

Caner-Medley’s recent play provides hope the Terps can do that. He scored 33 points against Georgia Tech, then added 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against Temple, and his willingness to be more aggressive and drive to the basket with greater frequency earned Williams’ praise.

It was the first time a Maryland player scored 30 points in consecutive games since Joe Smith did Feb. 25 and March 1, 1995.

Even without McCray, the Terps nearly earned Williams his school record-setting 349th win at Maryland. Both Caner-Medley and Mike Jones have thrived in the last week, and forward Ekene Ibekwe was effective whenever the Terps deciphered the Owls’ stingy matchup zone.

“That’s a great ballclub,” Temple coach John Chaney said. “They came in and played extremely well. He’s got two or three pros on that team. I know Gary. He’ll get his win. I’m happy he didn’t get it on me, but I’m happy because he will.”

There is some reason for concern. Maryland’s ballhandling was spotty en route to 20 turnovers against the Owls, in part because junior point guard D.J. Strawberry was held to 26 minutes because of foul trouble.

Strawberry was especially frustrated with his performance after not scoring in the loss, though the foul situation appeared to be as much a culprit in limiting his effectiveness at both ends as any other decisions.

“The past couple games, I was just trying to be solid, and I haven’t been aggressive,” Strawberry said. “I haven’t been myself. I haven’t played with the emotion that I have in the past. I just have to get that back.”

The Terps have until Thursday to regroup before welcoming North Carolina (12-5, 3-3) to Comcast Center. In place of a maelstrom of games, the extra time to prepare will provide some time to digest recent events.

“It’s been a tough week, and we’ll grow from it,” Caner-Medley said.

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